Each morning as they walk to Lowell Elementary School, children pass Spanish signs that reflect the homes most come from. Across the street from the Mesa school sits the brightly-painted La Estrella Carniceria y Panaderia, selling Mexican breads and chorizo.
Down the road, the blue Mexican-style ice cream shop and Taqueria Guanajuato advertise their frozen treats and breakfast chilaquiles in Spanish.
Along this stretch of the Broadway Road corridor, the Spanish-speaking population’s presence can’t be missed. The same couldn’t always be said about the Spanish-speaking students’ test scores.
But not anymore. The state’s lawsuit to keep many of their scores from counting under No Child Left Behind was dismissed in February.
This week, when English learners take the AIMS test, their scores will count in determining if their schools — and Arizona — are complying with federal law.
Nearly 80 percent of Lowell’s students are considered English learners, though many more speak only Spanish at home, said principal Sandi Kuhn.
“When our students enter kindergarten, we have only one or two English speakers,” she said.
Language is an issue when students take Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards — the exam used to determine compliance with No Child Left Behind — because state law requires all students to be tested in English, regardless of their grasp of the language.
No Child Left Behind then requires states to count the scores of all students regard less of their race, income or English proficiency. But in previous years, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne had excluded the scores of English learners who had been enrolled three years or less when determining schools compliance with the federal law.
Horne contends that he struck an off-the-books deal with federal officials in 2003 that makes the practice legal. But last year, the U.S. Department of Education required Arizona to include nearly all English learners’ AIMS results in the calculation that decided whether schools met federal standards.
When Horne announced last year that all English learners' scores would count, the students had already taken the test.
The results were not good.
A Tribune analysis found that when English learners’ scores were included, the percentage of elementary schools failing to meet federal standards doubled, from 12 percent to 24 percent.
If a school fails to meet the federal benchmarks two years in a row, it can be labeled “in need of improvement” and could begin losing local control of how it’s run.
In July, Horne filed a lawsuit against the federal education department to permit Arizona to continue excluding some English learners’ scores.
But in February, U.S. District Judge David G. Campbell dismissed the lawsuit because the federal department has not yet penalized the state for excluding the English learners’ scores.
“It was what you call a tactical defeat and a strategic victory,” Horne said.
The state has again requested that the federal education department allow English learners’ results to be excluded for three years. If the agency rejects Arizona’s request, as is expected, Horne said he will file another lawsuit.
But the federal government has been far from sympathetic.
“Most of our English language learner students are born here. Two-thirds of these kids were born in the United States of America,” U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said at a Mesa school last week. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable that by the end of the third grade they would be able to read on grade level in English.”
That might be true nationwide, but at Mesa’s Eisenhower Elementary School, the majority of English learners are immigrants, especially among the older children, said principal Pat Estes.
Twenty-six percent of Eisenhower students still need help with English. A typical class has two students who speak only Spanish, along with another 10 or so who are English learners.
Lowell principal Kuhn said research shows it takes between three and seven years of school before immigrants’ children are academically proficient in English.
While children can quickly pick up conversational English, assistant principal Chuck Berger explained, it takes much longer for them to learn the academic vocabulary needed to excel in tests.
“They know the language of the playground,” he said, “but not the language of academics.”